Can we hope for a neocalvinist-neopuritan dialogue?
Can we hope for a neocalvinist-neopuritan dialogue?

Can we hope for a neocalvinist-neopuritan dialogue?

Forging a public theology relevant for our times.

Appears in Winter 2008
Editor's Note: For more conversation on the topic begun below, see the following:

Part of me feels silly proposing a conversation between "neocalvinists" and "neopuritans." Few people identify themselves using either of these theological labels, and in the context of broader North American evangelicalism, the two doctrinal emphases are brought together in a single Calvinist sub-grouping. To some in our time of doctrinal de-emphasis, even the Calvinist label is seen to be mainly relevant for seminarians who need to pass their exams, simultaneously wondering, was it right to spend so much money on a course of study so irrelevant to my desire to minister to people in the church?

However, the issues related to these doctrinal emphases are not just relevant for ministry, but also for cultural life, and an understanding of each and the ways they may work together is important. While there may be intramural features of the neocalvinist-neopuritan debate that are of interest to those of particular theological persuasions, the crux of the matter deals with a broader question that face all those who struggle to understand what it means to answer their calling as Christians in our common culture. Those who seek to root their obedience in an understanding of the Bible and the world that digs a bit deeper than a few ethical bromides or convenient proof-texts require a public theology relevant for our times.

At the heart of a proposed conversation between neocalvinists and neopuritans rests questions of intersection. How does personal faith coincide with corporate action? Can there be tensions between love for God and my love for neighbor? How does one practically remain "in the world" without becoming "of the world"?

Neopuritanism and Neocalvinism: Establishing the Terms

I use the term "neopuritan" as a catch-all label to capture the recent resurgence of a Calvinist theology and church life of the sort documented in Collin Hansen's recent book, Young, Restless and Reformed (Crossway: 2008). Hansen characterizes this phenomenon as a rediscovery of the doctrines of the sovereignty of God in particular, as well as a rediscovery of Puritan literature in general. This brings with it "an enlarged view of God's authority chang(ing) the way (adherents view) evangelism, worship, and relationships."

The neopuritan movement has a different impulse than that of neocalvinism, which is another movement witnessing a resurgence in our time. Many neocalvinists would consider the neopuritan movement as a little too "churchy." Neocalvinists emphasize life beyond the church. Their Calvinism has a "changing the world" comprehensiveness. It focuses on all spheres of society and puts the restoration of the creation in clear view. Or, to quote the slogan of the 19th century Dutch cultural leader Abraham Kuyper (which has been used as an almost defining summary credo of neocalvinism): "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"

To distinguish the two movements by characterizing neopuritanism by its focus on the sovereignty of God in salvation, and neocalvinism by the sovereignty of God over creation, contains an element of truth, but does not do justice to either movement. This division implies that that neocalvinists are unconcerned about personal piety, while neopuritans are indifferent regarding the implication of the gospel for society and its structures. Plenty of evidence can be compiled to convincingly refute both of these charges. Still, while both movements affirm similar truths and appeal to the same sources regarding the application of the entire range of biblical data in the contemporary context, neopuritanism is slanted more towards individual piety and churchly revival, and neocalvinism is slanted more towards corporate activism and cultural renewal.

The typical conversation between the two camps runs something like this. The neocalvinists critique the neopuritans for an impulse toward withdrawal from the common culture into the "ghetto" of a Christian subculture or the enclave of the church, as a result of what neocalvinists call "pietism." The neopuritans admit possible deficiencies in fully expressing their biblical calling to express the sovereignty of God in all of life, but caution that historical experience shows that such activities often carry unintended negative consequences. The historical examples the neopuritans cite focus on the devaluing of the institutional church and her ministries; an uncharitable triumphalism sometimes shading over into utopianism; and the combination of a theology focused on cultural transformation with a less than adequate emphasis on personal holiness and personal relationship to the Lord.

p>So, we have two streams flowing from a single source, but in very different directions. Some minimize this difference as a matter of emphasis. Others implicitly elevate their stream as a "purer" form of obedience. My point here is that both movements have something to learn by considering their own streams in relation to the other, for within this conversation lie the seeds of some essential aspects of Biblical teaching which are often overlooked. Our times call for a well-rounded public theology, the existence of which seems in short supply in the broader North American Protestant world. This conversation exposes some important issues for consideration.

Four Neocalvinist Insights

Neocalvinism organizes itself, to use the central argument Albert Wolters makes in Creation Regained, "around the central insight that 'grace restores nature'—that is, the redemption in Jesus Christ means the restoration of an original good creation."

There are four particular insights that have emerged within neocalvinism that I have found particularly helpful and practical in sorting through the issues that have confronted me in over two decades of public life activism. These are creation order, antithesis, common grace, and sphere sovereignty.

The commonly used term "cultural mandate" (referring to God's command to humanity, mentioned in Genesis 1:28 and 2:15, to rule over and care for the rest of creation) cannot properly be understood without reference to creation order. Among the vital insights relevant for Christian public witness today is the sense of "potential" that exists in the creation. When God created the world, his creation was good or complete. That means all of the technology, culture, and progress that has been discovered and developed by man since Eden is to be understood as somehow encompassed in God's good creation. When a new scientific discovery is made by man, we rightly are to understand this as part of the creation of God which he has allowed man as his image-bearer to discover and develop.

The notion of order is tied to the concept that the creation is filled with potential. While there are important distinctions to be made between "creation order" and the Roman Catholic concept of "natural law," the two share many overlapping aspects, and these concepts function similarly in the development of framework for Christian understanding of the world and society.

The concept of antithesis is the idea that sin runs through the human heart, and, therefore, it does not simply condemn of particular cultural activities. This does not ignore the truth that some activities can be spiritually harmful, but it recognizes that the concept of sin should not become a concept of legalism, where certain activities are condemned in a blanket fashion, while the avoidance of those activities somehow constitute righteousness. Sin has two dimensions, and both must be considered—the human dimension of sin, as well as sin's effects on the non-human world. The "groaning of the creation" in Romans 8 highlights the scope of sin and its consequences: even the ground and its vegetation are impacted by man's fallen disobedience. Every activity in which humans engage is affected by the fall—sin is personal, but it also manifests itself in the various organizations of society, including those that call themselves Christian. Just as an appreciation of the cultural mandate broadens our vision of the creation and how God is glorified through it, so the antithesis broadens our understanding of the fall as something more than just impacting personal guilt before God; it is a corruption of every aspect of His good creation.

Common grace is a third feature of neocalvinism that provides valuable insight for the Christian calling in contemporary culture. While this concept has also been the subject of some controversy, it provides important insights for Christian social activity. There are two consequences of the neocalvinist understanding of common grace that are important. The first is that the goodness of creation, particularly when it is stewarded in a way that is in general accord with God's commandments, provides benefits for believers and unbelievers alike. Just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), so the benefits of God's creation flow to all men. Secondly, it is not only the actions of believers that contribute to these benefits. Because all men are made in the image of God, unbelievers can have true insights and perform beneficial works. While they are not of a saving benefit (unbelievers cannot experience true shalom outside of a relationship with God—see the Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 62 and 91), they are nonetheless profitable and can be used by God to benefit the entire world, including believers. Sometimes God, in his providence, arranges matters so that unbelievers have a significant role to play, such as was the case with Cyrus and the Israelites. These insights, in combination with the "natural law-type" implications of the creation order, create a framework for a biblical understanding of cultural activity that go a long way in sorting through issues such as the extent Christians can work in joint projects with unbelievers, the place of technology and research, and our approach to history and progress. It also helps us begin to address the challenges of societal pluralism.

The fourth feature of neocalvinism that has significant relevance is the concept of sphere sovereignty. This is essentially the insight that there is a differentiation within the creation into "different spheres that possess their own unique nature," and that these natures are normative. Nicholas Wolterstorff says it well: "Just as we may consider what constitutes the well-formed lion, so in a similar manner we may consider what constitutes the well-formed state, well-formed school, the well-formed family and so forth. In short, there are abiding norms for the State, for the School, and all the other categorically distinct social structures." (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 1983, page 58)

In contrast to the social and political perspectives of modern individualism and statism, both rooted in an Enlightenment/French Revolution conception of individual rights and social contract, a biblical view of society goes beyond the individual and the state. Contemporary North American political discourse can be considered as the flipping of a single two-sided coin. On the one side, we have individual rights and free markets, while on the other side, we have the power of the state as a social engineer. Whatever way the coin lands, political discourse proceeds from an autonomously human view of authority. Intermediary social structures such as families, churches, businesses, and schools have only secondary or derivative status. Most Christian activism, on both the left and right, approaches public life by accepting this framework.

Sphere sovereignty, on the other hand, provides an alternative framework for understanding society. It provides a theoretical basis that better recognizes the reality of the social architecture North Americans take for granted, and better equips Christians for engagement on important issues of the day.

Two Neopuritan Insights

It is clear from the above that neocalvinism provides crucial insights that are relevant for our times and assist greatly in developing a public theology that is soundly biblical. In lamenting The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994, Mark Noll highlights the contribution of neocalvinists as a "tonic—bold in confessing historic Christian faith, expert in carrying on sophisticated philosophical argumentation, and far-reaching in proposing new theories." It is also a diverse movement that is undergoing self-critical reassessment. So if neocalvinism has all these insights and answers, why is it still relatively unknown in the broader North American conversation?

There is no easy or single answer. Many of the historic explanations are entangled with Reformed interdenominational polemics, and would too narrowly focus us on the idosyncratically Dutch historical roots of this debate. Instead, let me highlight two characteristics of North American neopuritanism which might partially explain what is found deficient in much neocalvinist writing, using it as a springboard to propose an agenda for a possible conversation between the two movements.

The first neopuritan theme is a very high view of the church as an institution. Recognizing that some of the "energy bursts" for the resurgence of neopuritanism have come from parachurch movements (for example, conferences like the annual Passion event, or resource ministries like John Piper's Desiring God or R. C. Sproul's Ligonier Ministries), nonetheless the heartbeat of neopuritanism is a high view of worship and the local church. The opening line of the Westminster Catechism—"man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever"—serves as the unifying slogan, and there is an emphasis on personal experience and corporate worship that animates spiritual life. Weekly worship in which biblical exposition and teaching is central characterizes this diverse movement, even as the form of that worship varies widely. A service led by C.J. Mahoney at Covenant Life Church will seem almost Pentecostal compared to the more traditional preaching of the Word and music service, with choir and orchestra, at Grace Community Church led by John MacArthur, which contrasts again from the psalm-singing, minister-led service that one would find at a Heritage Reformed Service, in which Joel Beeke might be in the pulpit. However, their differences notwithstanding, these churches regard the institutional church, the worship service, and offices of the church as having particular roles in the God-given order. Theology is not just another science; it is the "queen of the sciences", and the church, not just in her organic sense, but also in her institutional sense, is the "bride of Christ." God is delighted to meet with his bride and receive her worship.

This neopuritan emphasis on the regular worship of the church is not found to the same extent among neocalvinists. A century ago, F.M. TenHoor, a contemporary critic of Abraham Kuyper, charged that Kuyper's "organic" view of the church—which Ten Hoor contended had philosophic roots in German Romanticism—had profound implications for preaching and church life in general, and would inevitably lead to a spiritual malaise. Kuyper argued that the essence of the church was "the invisible church" and that the "visible" structure of the church was of secondary importance. It flows from Kuyper's position that the real work of the church occurs during the week when God's people are busy in obedient gratitude serving God in their respective vocations, fulfilling their cultural mandates. Sunday worship, to borrow Nicholas Wolterstorff's description, becomes "a refueling stop." The two quite different understandings by neopuritans and neocalvinists of where the "visible" church and the discipline of theology fit within a broader framework require further dialogue and exploration.

The second neopuritan theme involves how one deals with end times theology (eschatology). As noted earlier, the central theme of neocalvinism is "grace restoring nature." In contrast to most of 20th century evangelicalism, where the predominant image of eternal glory involves disembodied souls joining angels in a perpetual choir concert, neocalvinists emphasize a necessary counterbalance. To quote Wolterstorff again: "The Genesis account supports the conclusion that shalom is in large measure the eschatological counterpart of creation." The emphasis is on the physical—the Biblical texts speaking of banquets with wine flowing and majestic cities being enjoyed. The "drama of Scripture" (to borrow from the title of the book by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen) involves a story that moves from "The Garden" to "The City", and our reading of the Bible needs to be done with a worldview lens that allows us to apply a "creation-fall-redemption" motif to all of life.

These are very necessary and valuable antidotes to so much of 20th century theology, which neither does justice to the biblical data regarding end times nor provides guidance for living in society today. However, I fear that in responding to one imbalance, there is the danger of veering too far and potentially falling into an opposite ditch. Part of the reason neocalvinism doesn't resonate fully with those from a neopuritan impulse is its inadequacy to deal with the biblical data regarding judgment. In neopuritanism, the Biblical themes of judgment, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual warfare seem to have greater emphasis. In the mainstream, it is unlikely to find significant divergence between the eschatological presuppositions espoused by neopuritans and neocalvinists (allowing for the fact that divergent positions, especially regarding what is meant by the millennium mentioned in Revelation 20:1-6, will be found in both camps). Still, when one probes the role that eschatology plays in the daily life of the church and her members, there are significant differences to be found.

An Agenda for Conversation

I began with the suggestion that we needed a public theology for our time, implicitly suggesting that we do not presently have an adequate one. In my own journey, both neopuritan and neocalvinist sources have played pivotal roles in shaping my thinking, with the uncomfortable consequence that, depending on who asks the question, I will usually identify myself as both, or neither. Tension, however, can be a good thing, as it forces us to consider old questions in new ways. It requires us to return to the sources, not content with pat answers handed down.

Both these traditions are seeing a resurgence, and this newfound energy can lead to fruitful conversations. I would propose that framework for a new public theology for our times can emerge out of a convergence of these two movements. Such a theology would need to be rooted in orthodox doctrine, have a worldview robust enough to answer the questions our neighbours are asking, be applied with an ethic of integrity, and be lived out of a pilgrimage spirit, seeing that we are not called to build a lasting city, but that we seek one to come (Hebrews 13:14). Both neopuritanism and neocalvinism, and the wellsprings from which they arise, can make a valuable contribution to filling out this framework.

The six themes I have identified, while hardly providing the complete answer, at least provide what I hope is a healthy agenda for discussion. The result of a dialogue between neopuritans and neocalvinists, I hope, will encourage a renewed witness in which the people of God live in a way that proclaims the lordship of Christ over all of life, to direct people with heart, soul, mind, and strength to live to the honour and glory of God.

Topics: Religion
Ray Pennings
Ray Pennings

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.


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